nytheatre.com review by Joshua Conkel
August 22, 2009
"I don't want everybody to like me. I just want one body to love me." So says the lovable Art, of Art's Heart, a Canadian import now playing in the New York International Fringe Festival. One man shows are a tricky business. The smallest flaws within a script, the tiniest cracks in a performance, and an entire show can be derailed. Art's Heart, possessed of a charming but by no means flawless script, relies on the winning talent of performer Anthony Johnston, who also wrote the piece.
The entirety of the play takes place in Art's apartment, which he shares with his best friend, a fish named Paul. Art, dressed only in boxer shorts, is covered in tomato sauce. It seems he's run afoul of some neighborhood skunks, one of the myriad reasons he seldom leaves his apartment. The larger reason, and the overarching theme of the play (as the title suggests) is that Art has a congenital heart defect which makes loud bangs, sudden scares, running, jumping, or dancing absolute no-nos. Art, it seems, is too soft for life in the big city: one false move and he could suffer from cardiac arrest.
The problem, of course, is that Art has fallen in love with the French man in the apartment across the street, whom he spies on with binoculars. It should be noted that Art has no way of knowing that the man is actually French. He's never spoken to him. Art simply decided he was French because he liked the idea of it, just as he patronizes the XXX video store beneath his apartment. "All love stories!" With nobody to talk to but a fish, Art has retreated into his own imagination. During the course of Art's Heart, the precious world he's created runs smack into reality in ways that are in turn sad, funny, and unexpected.
Johnston is possessed of a rare gift. The audience liked him before he even spoke. He emits a warmth that draws you in immediately. A lesser actor might not be able to sustain the show through the thin plot. This isn't a criticism of the script, by the way. It's a play about feelings, rather than plot points. Thankfully the sentimentality isn't allowed to cross over into the saccharine for long. There is a sort of melancholy just beneath the surface, and director Nathan Schwartz's crisp staging has real claws and keeps the play from becoming so cutesy that it annoys. Also, it cannot go unmentioned, as I'm sure the giggling gay gentlemen who sat in front of me would attest, that Johnston happens to be very good looking, which does little to alienate audiences.
All in all, Art's Heart is a lot like receiving a love note from a secret crush: sweet and funny and scary all at once. Though Art's world might be heightened some, and his circumstances may not be our own, through his short journey we are reminded that we're not so sensitive as we think. When all is said is done, we're incredibly resilient beings. In the end, our hearts can take it.